Art, can be any thing, after Duchamp. Art can be made by any one, after Beuys. Meanwhile ‘The Personal Is Political’ according to Carol Hanisch, and this statement (and Hanisch’s famous 1969 essay of the same name) suggest that politics is at least as universal as art. Therefore, when you teach a week-long Summer School (or ‘Short Course’) called ‘Art & Politics’ it might be hard to know where to begin or end.
Ultimately, this course or programme is shaped by your own tendencies, interests, habits, your own reading, your intellectual journey. But also by your students, many of whom have flown into London just for this course. You have, inevitably, favourite texts, movies, ideas and connections, certain artworks that make your points effectively.
Nevertheless, you always go into a course like this, and into almost any course you now teach, with a certain openness, ready for the particular students, the changed and changing world, the current exhibitions in London, and that elusive factor, your own changing knowledge and opinion of the subject, to all combine in determining the outcome.
Today is the final day and you can report that you have made connections from Baudelaire’s famous 1846 Salon essay, through Hanisch, to Walter Benjamin, Mikhail Bakhtin’s ‘Carnivalesqe’ and a little essay on Selfies, written by George Vasey.
Quite consistently you’ve referred to the idea that what we call ‘Art & Politics’ is influenced, not just by ideas and ideologies but by cultural environments and technologies – the city, suburbia, photography, film, video, TV, social networks.
‘Art & Politics’ is also about how the self (often by means of these same technologies) corresponds with wider community, culture and commerce. So it was also important to watch Abbas Kiarostami’s movie ‘10‘, and Renzo Martens’ ‘Episode III: Enjoy Poverty‘, and why it was important to (re)visit the ‘Punk, 1976-2016‘ exhibition at The British Library and the ‘FANZINES: A Cut & Paste Revolution‘ vitrine show at Barbican Library’.
Zines may now appear to be the forerunner of our ubiquitous Blogs and Posts, and yet the show at Barbican seems so much richer than the endless sprawling selection of online communications we encounter daily. Not only is every single zine unique in its design, content, and materials, but the care that has gone into making each of them reflects the value of the messages they are intended to carry. Each strives to nurture some personal passion, however (purposefully) perverse. A kind of urgent necessity pervades every staple, every fold and every carefully typed word.
Like Punk, a zine is, or was, a way to give form to, and thus in some way legitimate, a line of thought that might otherwise remain mere immaterial whimsy, lines of thought which often seem too personal to be of interest to the wider world, but are painstakingly published in multiple editions nevertheless, as if out of bloody-mindedness. As such, the tradition continues (even in their more homogeneous, generic and virtual online form as Blogs and Posts) to assert the value of an ambitious affirmation of self-worth, proclaiming a certain irrepressible sovereignty that here survives the constant onslaught of unwelcome abuse made by mass media, mass production and mass promotion.
Zines promote YOU and what YOU believe to be important/funny/daft, and even a modest show like this one at the wonderfully voluminous, strangely anachronistic Barbican library, is enough to allow you to revel in all the care and creativity that goes into each audacious act of self-publishing.
Interestingly, the show includes a kind of ur Zine in the form of a foxed and faded copy of John Milton’s Areopagitica, ‘published at the height of the English Civil War in 1643 . This helps to prove your assertion that ‘Art & Politics’ is something for which we cannot find a manageable or convenient temporal or conceptual frame and so must embrace holistically, and relativistically, while allowing our own interests to give shape to the subject.
Renzo Martens’ film remains harrowing and is still strangely beguiling, despite years of repeated viewings, discussions and despite having published writing on it. Episode III still does better than almost any other journalism or other art that you know, to bring us into a more real and necessary proximity with the inhumane economy operating behind the scenes of our ‘Spectacular Society’. It ventures nobly but always also Quixotically, to embroil itself in the difficult search for solutions to apparently impossible and inextricably convoluted ethical problems, even if these turn out to be an update on that old conjuring trick described by Marx in the first chapter of ‘Capital‘.
Profit and comfort, leisure and excess all depend upon the abuse of someone else’s humanity, on the extraction of someone else’s time and energy, and its ‘magical ‘ transformation into economic value. Meanwhile, those who work at the hard butt-end of capitalism will continue to be exploited, and with increasing intensity, until or unless capitalism encounters the conditions that will enable its own abolition.
Martens tries to reminds us that Art & Politics is your ‘Flat White’, your shampoo and your smartphone, if only because Palm Oil, Coltan and Coffee are all extracted from the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa, along with diamonds and gold, and apparently with no significant (e.g. enduring, infrastructural) returning to those countries, other than in the form of patronising and ultimately debilitating aid which, in Renzo Martens’ argument, perpetuates an appalling state of poverty which, is, in various ways ‘enjoyed’ (as part of the great ‘visibility’ spectacle) by our drastically divided, media-saturated society.
Electric guitars, microphones, record players, photographs, photocopiers, risographs, vinyl records, and movies made with hand-held video cameras, can all reveal ‘personal’ details about our ‘political’ lives, through blogs, home movies, demos and selfies. Together they form a historical procession of little liberties and liberations, cultural revolutions, expressions and critiques.
This ever-lengthening procession of technologised representations is and has invariably been made by, claimed and grasped by those thus far failed by supposedly representative democracy.
In the continuing promise and future of these available technologies, as well as in the increasingly curated history of these technologies, we might feel justified in investing our hopes, and more so, you might add, than we invest in ‘representative democracy’ and more even than we feel we can invest today in our crushed, compromised, curtailed, kettled and consumed humanity.
Rather, our most accessible technologies, each (once détourned) potentially ‘cultural’, each (once détourned) potentially political, have become our ‘super-humanity’, supplanting any leader or god in whom we might have previously entrusted our redemption.